Thursday 31 October 2013

SIBA North Judging: Possibly Slightly Less Unfit For Purpose Than Last Year

Last year at about this time I had a grumble about poor judging at the SIBA North event in Manchester. I had witnessed a woeful ignorance of off flavours from several judges. I also noticed that many judges preferred bland beer to tastier beer, marking them accordingly. It seemed many judges were treating the event as a jolly day out drinking beer at someone else’s expense.

This year’s North West event was held at Hawkshead Brewery’s beer hall at Staveley near Kendal, in my home county of Cumbria. The beer hall is considerably smaller than last year's Manchester venue. The number of Staveley judges was about a third of the number of Manchester judges. I noticed the absence of some of the clueless judges I’d made a mental note of the previous year.

The first of my three rounds was bottled pale ale. Or, at least I think it was; my scrawled note said “bpa”. Three of the eight beers showed the unmistakeable damp cardboard flavour of oxidisation – one of them was particularly bad. I kept schtum while my three fellow judges murmured their general approval of the beers. I thought about correcting my fellow judges but decided not to be the know-all dick of the table. Several times I heard the beers to be declared “balanced.”* Result: bad beer got reasonable marks.

My second round was speciality beers. I opted to judge this round as I’d previously witnessed reluctance by some judges to have a go at funny foreign styles at rocket fuel strengths as high as a jaw-dropping 7% abv. Two of my three fellow judges expressed disappointment at being allocated the “weird stuff”, as one of them described it.

The beers were entertaining. Fortunately none showed any off flavours. One, described as “spiced”, tasted like mildly alcoholic Coca Cola. Another was an extremely good dark raspberry fruit beer with a sour note. It was a marvellous beer: if you had told me it was from a very good Belgian brewery I would have believed you. Two of my fellow three judges took exception to it, screwing up their faces in disgust. They marked it very low.

My third round was bottled golden ales. One beer was hellishly bitter, other than that they were competent though unremarkable beers.

Not being a SIBA grandee, I didn't judge the final round.

All in all, my piss boiled less than last year – possibly because I didn't have to fork out £30 for a rail ticket**. But questions for SIBA remain: just what are people doing judging a round in which they are likely to encounter something outside their parochial tastes? Just why are people who don’t know common off flavours judging beer?

Many thanks to Jon and Becky of Stringers Beer for the lift to Stavely and to John and Lucy of Barngates Brewery for the lift home.

 * I am suspicious of the descriptor “balanced.” It is often used where the word “bland” would be more appropriate. I find its use is often indicative of entry-level beer appreciation.

** Yes, I know SIBA is a good cause and all that, but so is my never-ending overdraft.

A happy brewer: category prize-
winner Roger Humphries of Cumbrian Legendary Ales